One Assassinated President Is Causing Problems for Haiti’s 2 Prime Ministers

The naming of Ariel Henry as another suspect in the slaying of Jovenel Moïse has turned a spotlight on the power struggle surrounding the investigation.
September 16, 2021, 12:00pm
Interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph (L) greets designated Prime Minister Ariel Henry (R) during a ceremony in honor of late Haitian President Jovenel Moise at the National Pantheon Museum in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on July 20, 2021.
Interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph (L) greets designated Prime Minister Ariel Henry (R) during a ceremony in honor of late Haitian President Jovenel Moise at the National Pantheon Museum in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on July 20, 2021. Photo by VALERIE BAERISWYL/AFP via Getty Images.

The addition of Haiti’s Prime Minister Ariel Henry to the long list of suspects in the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse adds new political intrigue and confusion to the investigation into the slaying in the hemisphere’s poorest nation, which is beset by gang violence and still recovering from a devastating earthquake.

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Henry’s name now joins that of the Colombian mercenaries who stormed his house to kill him, a Haitian-American doctor, and a former justice official accused of organizing the plot. 

On Tuesday, the country’s chief public prosecutor asked the investigating judge in the case to charge Henry in the July 7 assassination. But it’s not clear that he had the authority to make the formal request. According to a letter from Henry that emerged after the petition to the judge but was dated a day earlier, the prime minister had already fired the prosecutor.  

Henry and the prime minister who was in office when the assassination took place, Claude Joseph, are currently enmeshed in a public struggle for power, raising the question of whether Henry’s alleged link to the murder is real or politically motivated. Or both.  

Warring factions within the Haitian government are using the murder probe to undermine each other, according to Jake Johnston, a Haiti expert at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “This is a political struggle that has been simmering for some time,” he said. 

Henry has denied any connection to the killing. The main evidence linking him to it consists of two calls the plot’s alleged orchestrator, Joseph Badio, made to Henry’s cellphone about two hours after the assassination. 

Analysts of Haiti say the evidence pointing to Henry’s involvement is less than conclusive. 

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Though Henry has said nothing about the prosecutor naming him as a suspect, he has promised to solve the mystery of Moïse’s assassination. On September 11, he tweeted, “The real culprits, the intellectual authors and the sponsors of the odious assassination of President Jovenel Moïse will be identified.”

In addition to the prosecutor’s allegations, the Haitian Office of Citizen Protection, or OPC, the government ombudsman, called on Henry to step down on Monday because the Badio phone calls allegedly link him to the assassination plot.  

To add further ambiguity to the strength of the request for Henry’s indictment, Haitian legal scholars have pointed out that both the prosecutor and the ombudsman are acting outside their legally defined roles. “The prosecutor does not appear to have had the legal authority…  as he had been dismissed the previous day. The OPC's actions are similarly problematic,” Alexandra Filippova, a senior staff attorney with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, an NGO based in Port-au-Prince and Boston, told VICE World News.

Early in the morning of July 7, a group of mercenaries—18 Colombian citizens and two Haitian-Americans—entered the president’s private compound, posing as agents with the United States Drug Enforcement Administration to get past the front gate. They entered the president’s house and shot him 12 times. He died in his bedroom. The mercenaries also shot the first lady, Martine Moïse, but she was flown to a hospital in Florida and survived her injuries. Their 25-year-old daughter hid in the house and was not attacked. 

In confessions to Haitian police leaked to the Colombian media, one of the Colombian mercenary leaders, referred to as “Mike” in the tapes, accused then-Prime Minister Joseph of having prior knowledge of the plot. 

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Joseph was scheduled to step down as prime minister the day of the assassination because Moïse had named Henry as his new prime minister. Instead, Joseph declared himself prime minister and Haiti’s acting president.  

Henry responded by publicly condemning his exclusion as Joseph consolidated power. When Joseph stepped down three weeks later under pressure from the U.S. and other foreign allies, Henry referred to Joseph’s decision to take control of the country after the assassination as a “coup d’etat”

The same day, Joseph gave an interview to the New York Times, calling himself a “courageous man.” He now serves as the minister of foreign affairs in Henry’s cabinet.

The mercenaries, who are now in Haitian custody, accused officials of torture on September 7, claiming they’d been denied food and medical care for days on end, casting their confessions into doubt. Since the confessions were leaked, officials involved in the investigation, most prominently Leon Charles, the chief of police conducting the investigation, have denied the validity of the statements made in the interrogations, specifically relating to the allegation that Claude Joseph knew about the plot in advance. 

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No evidence has emerged to show that Joseph knew about it in advance, and he has not responded to the interrogation tapes. 

According to the leaked confessions, the mercenaries filled suitcases with millions of dollars in cash they found in Moïse’s house as he bled to death on the carpet from his wounds. This was meant to be their payment for the job. 

Then, the plan crumbled from a payday into a headache. Outside the compound, instead of a getaway car, the assailants saw police cars waiting for them, so they ran, dodging bullets and grenades, and hopped from one abandoned building to another, eventually hiding in the Taiwanese embassy, which was closed for security. They were discovered there and arrested 36 hours after the assassination.

While the firefight was going on between the mercenaries and the police, or perhaps just before, according to cellphone records, Badio called Henry, and the two talked for seven minutes. Badio, who is on the run, is a former official in the Ministry of Justice whom Haitian investigators have named as the primary mastermind of the assassination plot. Badio’s phone signal at the time of the calls was traced to the scene of the crime. 

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Henry has publicly defended Badio, saying he couldn’t have been involved with the crime because he did not have the financial means to hire the mercenaries. If the mercenaries’ taped confessions are true, then Badio did not need an external investor, as the millions of dollars in cash hidden inside the president’s mansion were meant to serve as payment for the hit. 

Before his assassination, Moïse had been plagued by fears that figures within his government and prominent business tycoons were attempting to overthrow him, so he routinely fired officials in his cabinet, the national police, and the judiciary.

He regularly replaced his prime minister, and Henry was to be his seventh. The government had become a rotating door of shadows serving a few months, then resigning or being ousted from their positions by an anxious Moïse.

Moïse had been ruling by decree since January 2020 and he had delayed the general election, effectively eliminating most of Congress as legislators’ terms expired. In February, he arrested a group of two dozen judges and politicians, accusing them of plotting a coup. 

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Currently, Haitian officials are split over whether to hold elections this spring or wait two years.  

In the interrogations, the mercenaries name Joseph Badio as the mastermind, and claim meetings were held at the house of former judge Windelle Coq, meetings in which Badio, Coq, and several other  plotters pondered who they would prop up as president after Moïse was killed. According to the tapes, Emmanuel Sanon, a Haitian doctor in Florida, and Coq were floated as possible replacements.

Sanon has since been arrested. Coq is a fugitive.

Mike, the lead mercenary, claimed the group settled on Joseph to replace Moïse after he was killed. The mercenaries alleged that Badio told them Joseph was supposed to protect them after the assassination and secure their escape, but instead they were arrested. “Jovenel was dead and the prime minister remained. We didn't even have to make an escape plan because the prime minister was going to protect us. And instead of protecting us, he betrayed and trapped us,” one of the mercenaries said in a leaked interrogation.

Other power players in the investigation include police chief Charles, who’s facing scrutiny himself. The Haitian National Human Rights Council released a report publicly questioning whether Charles or other officials in the national police force were involved in the assassination by allowing the mercenaries to bypass Moïse’s private security detail. 

Another major player is Jimmy Cherizier, also known as Barbecue, the country’s most powerful gang leader, who has participated publicly in protests demanding justice for Moïse’s killing. Cherizier is not a fan of Charles or Henry, and released a video in early September encouraging police officers to quit the force and join his gang alliance, mocking Charles. “The police live in poverty, and Leon Charles wants to send them to the butcher shop,” he said.

The August report from the Haitian National Human Rights Council accused other actors of knowing more about the plot than they let on. “The RNDDH believes that Martine Moïse, wife of the late de facto President Jovenel Moïse, holds much more precise information about the murder of her husband than what she kindly shared with the international press,” the report said. There are 647 agents assigned to security units whose primary function is to thwart any assassination plot, the report continued.  “They did not do that.” 

The report also casts doubt on Bed-Ford Claude, the prosecutor who named Henry as a suspect this week. Basing its conclusion on the warrants he requested in the immediate aftermath of the assassination, the human rights groups said that Claude “wanted to give the file a color of political persecution.”